The U.S. is betting that the global trading system's economic rewards ultimately will convince China's leaders to curb their "imperialism with Chinese characteristics."
That's the phrase U.S. defense analyst Dr. Michael Metcalf used in 2011 to describe what he saw as a disturbing shift in Chinese strategy, from one of "survival" to one of "development."
However, the U.S. bet on wealth is no sure thing. Metcalf posed this question: Does identifying development as China's determinative defense interest "raise the prospect that certain military activities overseas might be initiated by China that China might characterize as purely 'defensive' because an overseas event was having an unsettling effect on China's domestic stability and security?"
As a word, "development" sounds innocuous, but then so does "cabbage." In May 2013, a Chinese general said China would secure its South China Sea territorial claims by wrapping them with ships, air patrols and garrisons, the military "layers" akin to protective cabbage leaves.
Destroyers and strike aircraft, however, are not groceries. Vietnamese, Filipinos and Malaysians see them for what they are: weapons operating from Chinese military bases on manmade islands.
Development in Chinese strategic argot is a broad concept. This means it is squishy and therefore subject to transitory political interpretation.
How convenient. China can exploit opportunities. Defending development might include probing U.S. weakness. The "cabbage" general told media that the "right timing" had helped China successfully "recover ... contested areas" like the Spratly Islands.
Recover sounds innocuous, until we peruse the legal documentation. Scarborough Shoal in the Spratlys is about 250 kilometers from the large inhabited Filipino island of Palawan. It is 1,200 kilometers from China, but China claims it. In the mid-1990s, China built several mini-bases in the area and got little reaction from the U.S. The big claim came in July 2012, when China declared most of the 3.5 million square-kilometer South China Sea to be Chinese territory.
Chinese companies are now constructing more "territorial facts" by turning what geographers call "features" (rocks, shoals, etc.) into islands with bases. China has indicated that it will soon require foreign ships to get permission to pass through this newly created territory.
The U.S. objects to that demand. Washington says freedom of navigation (air and sea right of passage) is a vital global interest.
This May, China issued a security white paper that says, "China's destiny is vitally interrelated with that of the world as a whole. A prosperous and stable world would provide China with opportunities, while China's peaceful development also offers an opportunity for the whole world."
The U.S. would love to see China focus on making money. However, Chinese bases in what a decade ago virtually every nation on the planet recognized as the Philippines' and Vietnam's Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zones is not peaceful economic development. It is a slow war of territorial robbery.
This May, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter delivered a tough speech at Singapore's Shangri-La Asian defense conference. Slapping Beijing, he said nations "should be able to make their own security and economic choices free from coercion." The U.S. would "protect freedom of navigation and overflight principles." Carter then visited the Philippines and Vietnam and signed new defense cooperation agreements with both of them.
Though the U.S. and Philippines have had a bilateral defense pact since 1951, it appears the U.S. reaction surprised China. Perhaps Beijing thought it could confine its maritime territorial grab to one-on-one fights with the Philippines and Vietnam, at least until it built a string of fortified, populated islands.
Tougher talk is one thing; backing it up is another. The U.S. has reduced its military forces, and budget woes limit expanding U.S. air and naval power. However, to comprehensively curb "imperialism with Chinese characteristics," the U.S. will need those assets -- lots of ships and lots of planes.